According to D. Rounds (UCLA), this article is based on E. Herbert Norman, 1940, The Emergence of Japan as a Modern State, New York: Institute of Pacific Relations. Adapted by TK Chung.


In 1868, the long rule of the Tokugawa regime came to an end and full sovereign powers, at least in theory, were restored to the new Meiji Emperor. Opposition to Tokugawa rule had been growing for a long time, but it was not until the 19th century that several lines, ideological, of attack on the Shogun were available. From these various lines of attack, the Restoration leaders emphasized, above all, the theory that in ancient days the Emperor had enjoyed great power and prestige and that the Shogun was a usurper who had taken all real authority away from the Emperor. Such a line of attack on the Shogun became more and more effective as Tokugawa power progressively declined. 

The Theories accounting for the Downfall of the Shogunate

Among historians, there have been two main schools of opinion on what really caused the downfall of the Shogunate.

1) The first school believed that the Tokugawa system of government might have continued essentially unchanged had it not been for the forcible opening of the closed door by the United States and other countries. It had been customary for these historians to refer to the primitive nature of Japan's economy before 1867 and to treat the Tokugawa period as though it were an era of almost stagnation. Therefore, the school of opinion argued that it was only the coming of the foreigners that undermined the authority of the Tokugawa government and so ruined it.

2) The second school of opinion, however, emphasized the undoubted fact that the whole regime had been under indirect attack from many directions inside Japan long before Perry arrived.

a) In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, rapid economic growth had produced an advanced economy capable of ready transformation into an entirely new political and social order.

b) By the middle of the 19th century, the antiquated political system and absurd political and social philosophy of the Tokugawa were more than 200 years out of date. The simple concept of the division of classes into rulers, warriors and commoners had little relation to Japan of the 19th century with its teeming cities, rich merchants, restless samurai and discontent peasantry.

c) Despite the division of the land into a large number of feudal fiefs, the people had developed a strong sense of national consciousness. The growth of nationalism and the development of a modern commercial economy had made Japan ready for the more efficient political forms of the modern nation.

d) The coming of the foreigners, symbolized by the Perry expedition, merely provided the final impulse towards a collapse that was unavoidable.

The theory that the main cause of the Shogunate's collapse was the forced opening of Japan to foreigners cannot of course be accepted, but the 2nd school of though has perhaps inclined to go too far in underestimating the impact of successful Western pressure on Japan in the 1850's. It is hardly believable that the Shogunate would have collapsed had it been able to resist the demands made by the United States, Russia, Great Britain and other countries of the West. It must be noted that so well had the early Tokugawa succeeded in creating a system capable of preserving political stability that the machine was still running relatively, smoothly. It was therefore necessary for an external pressure to disrupt it. This pressure provided by the foreigners was consequently fatal to the power of the Tokugawa which had already been weakened by other forces.

Another point to notice is that the economic weaking of the Tokugawa feudalism which has been serious by the early 18th century and was actually not much worse by the middle of the 19th century. Moreover, the Shogunate itself was on the whole better off than most of the daimyo. It could debase the currency to its own advantage and it controlled all the great cities and most of the economically advanced parts of the country. It would be hard to argue that the Shogunate fell from the economic difficulties, all the easier. The downfall of the Tokugawa regime was thus the result of the conjunction of 2 processes:

a) the internal decay of feudal society and    b) pressure from the Western nations

It was only through the coincidence of these two forces of internal decay and external pressure that contributed to the so-called Meiji Restoration in 1868.  [Go Top]

Figure: Bakumatsu magnify

fall of tokugawa

The Parties Overthrowing the Tokugawa

The overthrow of the Tokugawa was finally accomplished through the union of anti-Tokugawa parties. These parties included:

1) the lower samurai and ronin, particularly the great western clans of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa & Hizen which provided the armies and the territorial base of operations;

2) the kuge, i.e. the court nobility and the Emperor who served as the ideological justification for the overthrow of the usurping Shogun;

3) the merchants, especially of Osaka and Kyoto, who contributed money to the revolution;

4) the peasants who not only served as soldiers but whose general discontent weakened the Tokugawa domains.

The leadership of this alliance was in the hands of the lower samurai, some of whom were administrators, some were intellectuals or warriors and all of whom were concerned that the Tokugawa had to go. However, these samurai and ronin could not have overthrown the Tokugawa only by their strength and determination. Less dramatic than the political and military achievement of the samurai but more far-reaching in accomplishing both the overthrow of the Shogunate and the stabilization of the new regime was the financial support of the chonin, especially of Osaka where it is said 70% of Japan's wealth was concentrated.

The official records of the House of Mitsui says, "The loans required for the military operations of the Imperial forces were largely furnished by the House of Mitsui". The Meiji Restoration thus was the outcome of this coalition of merchant class with the lower samurai. The political settlement of the Meiji and especially the abolition of feudalism in 1871 can only be understood by an examination of this feudal-merchant alliance?  [Go Top]

The Feudal Merchant Coalition

In studying Japanese social history, it becomes apparent that one must dismiss all preconceptions based on a class-struggle interpretation as sometimes applied to the French revolutions. In the case of political struggle against the feudal aristocracy against the Church and the Crown and eventually winning a clear-cut victory in France. In Japan, however, the interests of the feudal ruling class and the big merchants became so closely connected that whatever hurt one easily injured the other. Should a daimyo refuse to pay his debts or threaten the merchant in order to obtain their cancellation, he soon found that whenever he applied elsewhere for loan, he met with a polite but firm refusal. The big merchants depended on the interest of the loans to daimyo and samurai for their livelihood. The samurai and the daimyo who together with their followers were compelled by the sankin-kotai system to spend 1/2 of their time in Edo, became the chief customers of the chonin.

Quite logically then, the chonin felt that their own prosperity was closely tied to that of the warrior and noble classes, their customers and debtors. For this reason, the chonin never dreamed of attacking feudalism as a system though they were prepared to finance a political movement against the Shogunate in connection with rival feudal elements. Takigawa Masajiro in his "Nihon Shakai Shi" or "A Social History of Japan", therefore said, "The reason why this nascent class of chonin did not even think of overthrowing the bushi class was the latter were their customers and if they ruined their customers, if only for a brief period, the shock to their own economic power would have been disastrous. For this reason, the samurai were able to maintain their position right to the Restoration, long after they had lost their real power in the country." This aristocratic class therefore stood shoulder to shoulder with the despised but economically powerful merchant and usurer class. As the Tokugawa period advanced, these 2 groups drew closer together making possible the co-operation between the big merchants of Osaka and the leading anti-Tokugawa clans. Thus, the Meiji Revolution was not the story of a rising business class which destroyed the structure of feudalism and established its supremacy in a mercantile state. Still less was it a democratic revolt transferring political power to representative of the mass of the peasants and workers.   [Go Top]

The Rise of Satsuma and Choshu

But what really sealed the fate of the Tokugawa was its failure to deal effectively in 1866 with the military opposition from the Satsuma-Choshu coalition. Satsuma and Choshu were outer clans of daimyos. They were tozama. Satsuma was in the southern Kyushu and Choshu was in the western end of Honshu. They were both traditional rivals of the Tokugawa. By the middle of the 19th century owing to the economic and social changes they were in a position to challenge the authority of the Bakufu. Both Satsuma and Choshu had a combination of advantages.

1) They were among the biggest domains that had any hope of influencing national politics.

2) Satsuma was officially ranked 2nd among the hans in tax yield and Choshu the 9th; and there were altogether 165 hans in Japan. In actual tax income they were actually the 4th and 5th. The wealth of Satsuma and Choshu in the mid 19th century was probably a factor leading to their success, for without adequate financial resources they would have had neither the strong morale nor the western arms which made possible their triumph.

3) In both clans, the ratio of fighting men to fix income was much higher than the national average, giving them greater military manpower than their economic strength would suggest. Satsuma had about 27,000 samurais. Choshu had about 11,000 samurais.

4) Another strength in the strength of Satsuma and Choshu was their internal solidality and union. They were located far from the major urban centres. Both (particularly Satsuma) were backward economically and socially compared with some of the strongholds of the Tokugawa. Hence the morale of their feudal warrior aristocracy was less roded and they were able to take more effective action than the hans located in economically more advanced area. Their very backwardness contributed to their strength.

5) Satsuma was lucky to have to strong daimyo in Shimazu Shigehide and later in his great grandson Nariskira, Satsuma also had the advantages of trade and contact with the outside world through its vessel domain, Ryukyu Islands, and had become a leading area in the study of western science and technology. In Satsuma there were a comparatively profitable mining industry, textile mills and trade monopoly. The latter probed particularly successful with sugar because Satsuma controlled the only parts of Japan where sugar can grow well. Like most other hans it was burdened at the very beginning of so-called "Tempo Reform". This effort enabled her in clearing the han debt.

6) Choshu situated across the straits of Shimonoseki through which all marine transport between Korea, China and Osaka had to pass was able by means of trade and transport monopoly to accumulate considerable wealth. The Choshu, led by young commanders of exceptional ability, were armed and to some extent, clothed after the European pattern. More revolutionary, however, was that these forces were not confined to the members of the traditional warrior class but accepted small townsmen and peasants as volunteers. The military competence shown by the Choshu commanders was to secure for their own clan after the collapse of the Shogunate a dominant role in the organization of a Westernized imperial army. Indeed for more than 50 years until after the First World War, the highest appointments in the Japanese army were held as a rule by members of the Choshu clan or their followers. On the other hand, the Choshu "Tempo Reform" was started in 1838 and succeeded in cutting down the han expenditure and holding down the ever mounting han debt.

Thus both Satsuma and Choshu were in good position to challenge the Tokugawa supremacy. The main political development of the 1860's proved to be a series of competition for national leadership between Choshu and Satsuma until finally in 1866, the two reached an understanding and entered into a secrete alliance to overthrow the Shogunate.  [Go Top]

Rivalry between Satsuma and Choshu for National Leadership

The movement for "The Union of Court and Shogunate" (Kobu Gattai)

In the year 1857 the emperor sent a secret message to Choshu and 13 other hans seeking support in his opposition to the Shogun's power.


a) The Moderate Reform Party which was in power at the time decided that Choshu should begin to take a part in national politics. Their decision was motivated primarily by the long smouldering resentment against the Tokugawa rule and by the memory of Choshu's greatness before 1800.

b) These reformers proposed that Choshu should mediate in bringing Edo and Kyoto together and this policy came to be known as "The Union of Court and Shogunate".

c) They also suggested that the emperor should order the Shogun to embark on the policy of "extension across the sea". Kyoto accepted this proposal because it was the first open admission of its political supremacy. The Shogun also accepted because he was delighted to have full support from the imperial court for the foreign policy he had been forced to accept. But in the end nothing came of the Choshu's effort at mediation. The policy was undercut within Choshu itself both by the opposition from the Extreme Pro-Imperial Party and by the doubts of other influential reformers. Moreover, their failure was due to the more daring bid for national leadership by Satsuma.


In 1862 Satsuma proposed itself as mediator between Kyoto and Edo.

a) to secure more Shogunate respect for the imperial court

b) to secure the release from confinement of Keiki (son of the Lord Mito and defeated candidate for the Shogunship, was pro-emperor and kept in confinement since 1859)

c) the appointment of Keiki as the Great Elder and guardian of the new Shogun.

Satsuma won imperial support for this proposal and with the court's censor it proceeded to suppress the Extreme Pro-Imperial Samurais from Satsuma and other hans. Then Satsuma presented the demands to Edo. Yielding to pressure, the Shogunate accepted the demands and made Keiki the Great Elder and Guardian of the Shogun, with Lord of Hizen (Matsudaira Keiki) had strong imperial leanings as a form believer in national unity. Under his influence the whole Tokugawa hostage system ("Sankin-kotai") was abandoned and the attendance of the daimyos 100 days every 3 years. These startling measures made obvious a change that had already occurred. The Shogunate no longer could exercise effective control over the hans.   [Go Top]

Pro-Imperial Movement

Choshu effort

The Choshu was not content to see national leadership fall into the hands of its Satsuma rival. Out beaten by Satsuma in the movement for A Union of Court and Shogunate ("Kobu Gattai"), Choshu adopted a new approach which took an open Pro-imperial stand and supported the sentiment of "Expel the Barbarians" that was obviously favoured by the Court. This change of policy united the Extreme Pro-Imperial Party with the reformers, the Extremists were now rising in influence in the han government. Choshu also gained the support of a few extremist court nobles and gradually won the control over the imperial court. It was further strengthened by the official support of Tosa (and of the major outer hans on the island of Shikoku).

So, in December 1862, the Choshu dominated Court got the Shogunate to agree to the expulsion of the barbarians. The Shogun was forced to set a date June 25, 1863 before which all foreigners would be expelled, although he knew that it was impossible. So, by this time the Choshu had placed the Shogunate in an impossible position. The Shogunate was caught between the pressure from the Kyoto Court and the superior military power of the West. It became ineffective. It was unable to make any step of policy, as it merely waited.

The Shimonoseki Affair

It soon turned out that Choshu's anti-foreign feeling had gone too far. The folly of such an unrealistic foreign policy was soon revealed. Choshu seeing that the Shogunate had taken no action to expel the barbarians attempted to act alone on the expulsion order. So, on the appointed day, its forts along the Strait of Shimonoseki at the western end of the Inland Sea fired on the American, French and Dutch ships. In response the American and French warships destroyed the forts on July 16-20 - known as the Shimonoseki Affair. Alarmingly, the Shogunate ordered Choshu to stop its action. But instead, the Shogun's envoy was captured and killed.

The Satsuma Coup d'etat (Restoration of Moderates)

Meanwhile, alarmed by this unrealistic foreign policy Satsuma had taken more effective action in Kyoto aided by the domain issued in Aizu (in northern Honshu). Satsuma organised a coup d'etat on September 30, 1863 and troops were sent to the gate of the imperial palace. The more moderate nobles were restored to control and the court councils and imperial troops created under the Choshu leadership were dissolved. The Choshu troops were forced to withdraw from Kyoto to their own han.  [Go Top]

Foreign attacks on Choshu and Satsuma

a) Choshu

At the end of May 1864, foreign ministers renewed their demands for the opening of the Shimonoseki Straits, threatening to take action themselves if Edo failed to do so. When Edo failed to give a reply, the ministers organised a joint naval expedition against Choshu. In September 1864, 17 foreign warships destroyed all the Choshu forts on the Shimonoseki Straits and forced Choshu to agree to the opening of the Straits. The Bakufu had to pay a war indemnity which was abolished after the Bakufu agreed in June 1866 to a new commercial treaty which reduced import duties to 5% and removed nearly all the restrictions on foreign made.


Choshu realized that their "Expel the barbarians" policy was impractical. From then on there was a change of policy putting greater reliance on westernized military units and on individuals who knew and understood the West. Two of their sumarais Inoue Kaoru and Ito Hirobumi who had just returned from Britain persuaded Choshu to adopt western ways. In the rapid modernization of Japan which started a few years later, Choshu became the patron and backbone of the new Japanese Army first with the French and then with the German army as its model. The consequent pro-Britain attitude of the Japanese Navy and the pro-German attitude of the Japanese Army were to exert a strong influence on Japanese policy from then onwards until the Pearl Harbour Attack.

b) Satsuma

In Satsuma the feeling of expelling the barbarians was also strong and would be illustrated by the Richardson Affair on September 14, 1862. This incident involved 4 Englishmen who were riding in the city of Yokohama and encountered the procession of Shimazu Hisamitsu. Richardson was killed by an enraged samurai who felt that the foreigner had not shown proper respect for their great lord. The British reaction was quick and by threats of naval power Britain forced the Shogunate to pay an indemnity of L100,000. She also demanded an indemnity from Satsuma and punishment for the murderer. On August 15, 1863, the Satsuma forts at Kagoshima fired on the 7 British ships which gathered there to force their demands. The British proceeded to destroy much of Kogoshima and to sink most of the Japanese ships. Satsuma agreed to pay an indemnity of $25,000 and this sum was to be borrowed from the Bakufu.


The incident naturally confirmed the Satsuma leaders' respect for Western military power and also produced a deep interest on their part in the British navy. The Lord of Satsuma was so impressed by this display of naval force that, less than 3 years later, he invited the new British Minister, and the Western naval ships for Satsuma. The friendly relations thereby established between Britain and the House of Satsuma played an important part, not only in the restoration of the Emperor a few years later but also in the British Navy's being chosen as the model on which the future Japanese Navy was founded and built up. Meanwhile, the inability of the Shogunate to punish the unruly clans or to obtain satisfaction from the foreign powers for the attacks made on their nationals and their property had revealed the growing powerlessness of the Shogunate. Many of the daimyo considered that the treaties were not binding on them as they had not been approved by the Emperor, who had in fact ordered the expulsion of the foreigners. For the same reason, they were beginning to feel themselves exempted from further loyalty to the Shogunate. The long established authority of Edo was therefore rapidly being replaced by the long-last authority of Kyoto. The movement to revive the Emperor's supremacy gained strength very rapidly. Indeed, it was evident that, if the anti-Tokugawa forced were to combine, there would probably be civil war in which the Shogunate might well be defeated.  [Go Top]

The Satsuma - Choshu Alliance (March 1866)

Satsuma and Choshu at the beginning were unfriendly. But their difference had gradually disappeared after 1861 because Satsuma had lost confidence in the Shogunate and doubted the real motive of the Shogunate. They came to decide that Choshu was a better ally than the Shogunate. Reconciliation between the two was brought about the pro-imperial ronin from Tosa. On March 7, 1866, a secret alliance was drawn up in Kyoto. This alliance meant the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate.  [Go Top]

Death of the Shogun and the Emperor

1866 - The Shogun Iemochi died and Tokugawa Keiki was his successor. He prepared to further progress of the nation by opening the country more fully to foreign intercourse.

1867 - Emperor Komei died and was succeeded by one who was not so hindered by the traditions and hostility of the past, he was Mutsuhito who took up his title as Meiji.

The Civil War

It became the customs in the 20th century for foreigners as well as Japanese to look back at the Meiji Restoration of 1867-68 as smooth, aimest, bloodless transfer of power. But in reality, there was civil war for several months. The Shogun, Keiki, voluntarily surrendered his administrative powers to the youthful Emperor, Meiji, in November 1867. So ended the 2-1/2 centuries of Tokugawa rule, and on December 9, 1867, the Imperial Restoration was formally proclaimed. The ending of the Shogunate and the Restoration of the Emperor, however, was actually the beginning of a further struggle before peace was finally restored. Following the formal proclamation of the Restoration, the formation of a new government was announced on January 3, 1868. To the indignation of the ex-Shogun's supporters, not only was Keiki excluded from its membership, his lands were ordered to be confiscated. Keiki himself was prepared to accept this treatment in silence but his adherents were not. He was persuaded to take up arms and on January 27, 1868 met with overwhelming defeat at the Battle of Fushimi. Following the defeat of his army, Keiki took ship to Edo and ordered the city to be surrendered to the Imperial troops.

Elsewhere certain clans loyal to the Tokugawa fought on firmly. The last area of resistance was at Hokkaido where an admiral of the Shogun's navy held out for some months in 1869. Thus ended the supremacy of the House of Tokugawa which provided Japan with 15 Shoguns.  [Go Top]

The Changing Attitude towards Foreigners

The forces that overthrew the Shogunate had long been associated with the slogan "Expel the Barbarians" and it might have been expected that with their victory, anti-foreign sentiment would become more serious and widespread. There were, of course, still a few isolated instances of anti-foreign agitation before Japan finally settled down to the task of modernization, but prompt and drastic punishment was given by the new government to those guilty of attacks on foreigners. It was no part of the policy of the new men who ruled Japan to antagonize, much less drive away, the barbarians. They realized that to achieve a position of power in the world, their country would have to be modernized. With all speed, it would have to catch up with the technologically advanced nations of the West.

But modernization could never be accomplished without Western help and advice. A number of foreign technicians had already been employed both by the Shogunate and by certain feudal lords before 1868. But after that year, there were many more of them - British, American, French, German and Dutch - engaged by the Japanese government as pilots, railways and marine engineers, financial and legal advisers, agricultural experts, university and school teachers, military and naval instructors and at the same time, Japanese were sent abroad to learn from the West. But among the Japanese, there has never been the scornful indifference that has often characterized the Chinese attitude towards foreigners. The Japanese have never been too proud to learn. It appeared therefore strange reversal of the whole situation for the anti-foreign monarchical party and, in effect, became pro-foreign almost overnight. In April 1869 the Emperor and his court left Kyoto to take up residence in Edo which was renamed Tokyo or Eastern Capital, had remained the imperial and administration centre of Japan ever since.  [Go Top]


The steps leading to the Meiji Restoration had been complex and largely haphazard rather than simple, straight-forward and planned. Conflicting interests had been drawn together in the final stages, but there had been more disunity than unity among those who eventually restored the throne to its legitimate position. In these respects, as well as in the national aspects, the movement had a striking resemblance to the Unification of Italy though the parallel cannot go too far. The forces that were to win the national revolution came from the imperial ideology that justified the revolution, the "Expel the Barbarians" spirit that gave it power and the ambition of young samurai of relatively humble birth that gave it daring drive. From then onwards, military power rather than traditional authority, public opinion or political skill was to be deciding future in Japanese politics.    [Go Top]

--The End --